Stayed on Freedom

by BC

Our reading came to us from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

If our religious tradition is anything, it is a vastly storied one. Though we are, by all accounts, a newer religion – with Unitarian Universalism being 57 years old and the parallel histories of our pre-merger ancestors, the Unitarians and Universalists, being as old as this country – we hold within our own volumes of history a great wealth of saints and sinners, wild religious experiments, growing pains, and sublime inspiration.

Today is one of those stories of the sublime. Because though our history on this continent is quite young, the core ideas of this faith are much older. Yesterday, the calendar landed on an remembrance that is central to the burning flame of Unitarian Universalism: the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda.

Now, if you remember my enthusiasm with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I assure you, I am equally enthusiastic about this weekend. The only difference is that, instead of creating t-shirts, coffee mugs, puzzles, lego sets, Christmas tree ornaments, and posters like the Lutherans did for the Reformation celebration, our own Unitarian Universalist association created a discussion guide to mark this occasion. That is so very UU. So while I have no swag for you today, I do have great enthusiasm.

This story transports us to the Eastern kingdoms of Europe in the 16th century. The Ottoman empire was exerting its influence on the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation was well under way and sweeping the continent, war was certain to happen between the competing empires, and nestled between all of this the tiny kingdom of Transylvania, in what is now Romania and Hungary.

We find ourselves in the mid-16th century, 1540 to be exact. The king of Transylvania, John Zapolya, died shortly after his wife, Isabella, gave birth to his successor – John Sigismund. Before he died, Zapolya worried that the Hapsburg empire would invade his country, turn the Transylvanians into vassals, or worse. He knew his death was approaching.

So he turned to the Ottoman empire and his friend, the sultan Suleiman. Zapolya asked Suleiman to ensure his wife and son – his heir – were protected from the Hapsburgs and other looming threats. Zapolya died. His son was named king. And Isabella served as regent until Sigismund came of age.

While raising her son, Isabella befriended an Italian physician, Giorgio Biandrata. Biandrata was a sobering counselor during this time – with threats of war, empire, and the expanding religious conflicts you can imagine came along with all of that. Biandrata shared with Isabella a new reform that had started to take hold amidst the religious rebellions against Catholicism. This new reform rejected the trinity and focused on the oneness of God. It was the Unitarian movement of the mid-16th century. Isabella was swayed in her conviction.

Not long after learning of Unitarianism and amidst the growing religious tensions in her kingdom, Isabella declared in 1557, when her son was 17 years old and nearly of age to rule, that Transylvanians could practice any religion they wanted. Isabella died two years later, and John Sigismund, then 19 years old, was finally king.

The turmoil continued throughout Sigismunds early reign. Biandrata, Isabella’s former counselor, kept close to Sigismund after his mothers death. He convinced Sigismund to appoint a former Catholic priest named Francis David to be the court preacher. He was a well known preacher, passionate, a firebrand of his time.

After leaving the priesthood, David became a Lutheran. Then a Calvinist. And then, you may have guessed it, a Unitarian. Sigismund enjoyed Davids preaching and appointed him. Grappling with the continued religious turmoil in his kingdom, Sigismund decided to hold a council, at David’s urging, which was known as the Diet of Torda.

In 1568, religious leaders from across the kingdom were gathered.
At the close of the Diet, Sigismund issued an edict. It was called the Edict of Toleration, the Edict of Torda. In it, Sigismund wrote the following words:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.

And thus ended the first ever edict of religious tolerance. An edict that afforded Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Orthodox, Jew, Muslim, and Unitarian believers the freedom to worship where they wanted, how they wanted, and to freely choose to find a community that best fit their beliefs. After the Edict was issued, Sigismund declared he was a Unitarian, and to this day stands as the only known Unitarian king.

To Unitarian Universalists today, it might not seem like a big deal. An edict was issued, that’s great, we treasure religious freedom here in this free faith. But we must remember that religion was a dangerous business in the 16th century. A questioned belief would lead to arrest, interrogation, torture, and a grisly death.

Wars were fought. Thrones were overthrown. And movements went into hiding. This was unheard of for the time. Two years after Sigismund presided at the Diet of Torda, he died. Many still think he was murdered. His successor was a Catholic, who threw the court preacher, Francis David, into prison.

David never saw freedom again, and died in prison. The light of religious tolerance was snuffed out in Europe once again. Despite this, the oldest Unitarian churches in the world still stand in Transylvania to this day.

450 years later, I cannot help but think the message of the Edict of Torda is just as relevant: that freedom should be cherished and our souls should be satisfied. Not only is this message applicable to the religious culture of our times, but yes, to the political one. To the racial one. To the corners of the earth where oppression and injustice still unleash horrors upon human beings. Some things never change. And some things just change painfully slow.

It is important for us to grab hold of this history, this history that is ours to claim, ours to remember, ours to tuck away in the back of our minds. The story of how the only Unitarian king and his court preacher briefly rocked the continent of Europe with a call to harmony, a call to respect one another amidst our differences – a call that led to the death of Francis David by those who will not have peace.

We tuck this away in our minds for weekends such as this. Weekends where we not only remember a great anniversary – 450 years – but we also remember the life of a man who also died for his faith.

It was a faith also rooted in tolerance. Acceptance. Peace. Harmony. It was the faith of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose story also parallels that of our recent Unitarian Universalist ancestors from the civil rights era. A faith that saw a bright shining moment in American history where hope was possible, but again, those who will not have peace ended his life.

These two stories might seem unrelated at first. That of the Edict of Torda and the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But I believe, for us, the inheritors of one of these stories and the witnesses of another – it brings to the forefront our primary goal in the work for justice: that our souls, in the words of the Edict of Torda, be satisfied. That human souls find satisfaction.

That everyone has the opportunity to dwell in the promise of the Beloved Community that we talk about so often. That lofty, not-yet-realized gathering where injustice is just another story we tell our children. But as is the case so often, the work before all of us is immense. And what these stories also tell us is that there will be progress – and it can be violently snuffed out for a time – but it will endure. It will endure whether it’s 450 years or 60 years. Because endure it must.

Yes, the work of justice is to satisfy the soul. But we are not there yet. One of the not-so-often quoted portions of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is one that often makes well-meaning white Americans uncomfortable. We like to quote him, admire him, but we sometimes lose the essence of what the civil rights movement was about. It was about the long road to satisfying the souls of Black Americans – who to this day are still fighting. Dr. King said:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I believe with the exception of “whites only signs,” our black siblings in this country are still waiting for satisfaction – for a peace to quieten their souls, for a glimpse of the beloved community to be had. They are waiting for the string of brutality to end. For economic mobility to be available to all. For their voices to be represented in party platforms and, in many states, for their right to vote to be as readily available as it is for most of us in this room.

Unitarian Universalists were witnesses to the life of Dr. King. We marched in Selma, we had martyrs die from their commitment to the cause of justice for black Americans, and today we still say we are committed to justice. I like to think that that spark of commitment, that openness and drive for the cause of freedom is something that was inscribed on the heart of our history.

The closest my humanist soul gets to believing in any supernatural divinity is in the knowledge that the cause for justice endures despite the assaults of the world. It endured in Transylvania, it endured in the American Civil War, it endured in the face of Nazi Germany, it endured during the Civil Rights Era. Surely, it will still endure today.

Today, where the state of Hawaii has had to implement early warning systems for missile attacks. Today, where majority Muslim nations are written off as undesirables in this land of the free. Today, where our culture is best known abroad as one of unchecked aggression and mass shootings.

Today, where black mothers and fathers fear for the lives of their children every time they leave the house. Today, where the leader of our nation is always one tweet away from another diplomatic crisis, let alone his undignified and racist remarks to lawmakers. Today, in 2018, where our values feel threatened at every turn.

It would be easy to lose hope. How could you not? But that is why we gather, friends. That is why we tell each other these stories. That is why it matters that this weekend is both the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda and the remembrance of the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It matters that we pause to remember that hundreds of years ago, hope briefly illumined a small European kingdom and was snuffed out, and decades ago, black Americans saw progress, only for that hope to be snuffed out as well. But still, I believe this, I truly do, you might be able to snuff out the flames of progress, but the burning core that ignites those flames, that dwells in the hearts of those who would say yes to peace and freedom – can never be extinguished.

Never, not for a moment. Not 450 years ago, not 60 years ago, not now, not tomorrow, not ever. Our souls shall be satisfied no matter what the world will unleash upon us, no matter what the forces of hatred and bigotry devise – our souls shall be satisfied when those who are oppressed, marginalized, beaten, tortured, and dehumanized also find satisfaction – that is, the winds of freedom, the balm of Gilead, the indelible hope that is our humanity at its best.

And so, to you, this gathered congregation on this day, you are invited to not just hear these stories, but to participate in their newest chapters – the ever-unfolding story of how hope endures and the human spirit cannot be destroyed. Sometimes all you can do is stay the course. There will be obstacles. There will be failure. There will be broken hearts and bodies and minds. There will be those who will cast doubt on our values and our faith.

But Unitarian Universalists have staked their claim. Our claim is in the preacher’s halls of the 16th century and our claim is arm-in-arm with black Americans in the civil rights era. Our claim is today, tomorrow, and in every instance where our values call for hope and justice. Will we stay the course – will we be stayed on freedom? Will we ignite new fires of hope in the face of intolerance? Will our souls, all souls, be satisfied? Blessed be. Amen.